A Whangārei volunteer team is buzzing after a daring late-night cliff rescue earned them the country's top search and rescue award.
The cliff rescue squad of Northland Land Search and Rescue received the honour for an operation at Spirits Bay, east of Cape Reinga, in December last year when a 21-year-old Auckland man got stuck 50m up a cliff.
The alarm was raised about 9pm so it was late at night by the time the squad arrived by helicopter.
The original plan was to winch the man into the chopper but the downdraft from the rotors would have blown him off the cliff.
Instead, the crew — Shane Cleary, Dean Rozendaal and Grant Brown — were dropped at the top of the cliff with the intention of climbing down to the trapped man to keep him warm and secure until daylight when it would be safe to try a winch rescue.
However, the rock was so crumbly there was nothing they could fix a rope to. They had to set up a belay system with the rope attached to Rozendaal and Brown as counterweights while Cleary descended the cliff in howling wind.
When Cleary saw the man was stuck on a narrow ledge he realised waiting until daybreak wasn't an option. He secured him in a harness and they climbed the cliff together using a self-belay system, reaching the top with only one minor slip.
The man was hover-loaded into the chopper and delivered to his family at Spirits Bay campground.
At the time Cleary described the rescue as "one out of the box" with no normal anchor points available and made more difficult by darkness.
LandSAR adviser Grant Conaghan, who ran the rescue from Whangārei, said the award was a huge achievement.
"The whole team's buzzing. It's recognition from their peers all around the country."
Conaghan believed the rescue stood out because it took place late at night, they were dropped into an area they'd never been before, and their ability to improvise when there were no anchor points and their artificial anchors wouldn't hold in the rotten rock.
The trophy was presented at the national LandSAR AGM in Wellington on October 10.
NZSAR said the "training, professionalism and bravery of the cliff rescue team in difficult circumstances was key to the operation's success".
Conaghan, an auto mechanic by trade, hoped the group would get some new members as a result of the award.
He also hoped the publicity might get them new premises. Northland LandSAR was currently based at Dyer St, Whangārei, in premises the owner let them use while it was untenanted.
It was ideal as a storage space for gear but had no toilet or plumbing and only an improvised kitchen.
The group earlier won a NZ Search and Rescue certificate of achievement for the same operation.
Another stand-out rescue took place in September 2019 when the squad saved an Australian tourist stuck halfway up a 170m-high cliff near Russell's Tapeka Pt.